The book itself suggested otherwise — that Mr. Scott was not only as fixated on his own color as the critics he scorned but also as determined to make use of it. The words “Black” or “African American” appear 75 times, or once every three-and-a-half pages — often within its capsule biographies of Black figures like Jackie Robinson and Madam C.J. Walker, whom Mr. Scott evidently sees as his historic peers. In truth and by design, the book is as much a kind of Black History Month reader as it is about Mr. Scott’s own life. And even that material begins with his grandfather teaching his mother how to pick cotton.
Ben Carson’s more successful run for the Republican nomination in 2016 seemed to have some of what Mr. Scott’s campaign lacked — though almost forgotten today, Mr. Carson, unlike Mr. Scott, actually found his way to the top tier of contenders for a time. To be sure, the substance of Mr. Carson’s commentary on race did resemble Mr. Scott’s. In a representative interview with the conservative talk radio host Dennis Prager, he both denied the persistence of deep racial inequality in American society — “Race doesn’t really keep you down in this country if you get a good education” — and argued that the racism worth worrying about was coming from his progressive critics. “It’s mostly with the progressive movement who will look at someone like me, and because of the color of my pigment, they decide that there’s a certain way that I’m supposed to think,” he said. “And if I don’t think that way, I’m an Uncle Tom and they heap all kinds of hatred on you. That, to me, is racism.”
But unlike Mr. Scott, Mr. Carson rarely discussed race of his own volition, on or off the stump. “Asked about it,” Molly Ball observed in The Atlantic, “he tends to deflect, rejecting racial distinctions as divisive.” And to the extent that Mr. Carson’s campaign did attempt to harness race to its advantage, as it did in a pair of conservative talk radio ads it aired before South Carolina’s primary that year, it did so the old-fashioned way: appealing to the racial anxieties and outright racism of white right-of-center voters. One of the South Carolina ads “inveighed against affirmative action as ‘racial entitlement’ while the other depicted Black crime as a ‘crisis,’” Ms. Ball wrote. “Taken together, the ads were a striking attempt to provoke white voters’ racial attitudes by a candidate who has otherwise avoided the subject.”
Mr. Carson’s own bootstraps story, meanwhile, mirrors Mr. Scott’s in certain respects — both men came to success from poverty and broken homes — but Mr. Carson’s personal narrative was also a tale of Christian redemption. As he tells it, he worked past the anger and violence of his youth through studying the Bible, which made him famous among the conservative evangelicals who would take an interest in his campaign long before he entered politics.
Mr. Scott has nothing like that story in his own narrative — a comparatively simple rags-to-Republican tale about the virtues of hard work and rejecting racial victimhood that, while appealing in the abstract to essentially everyone on the right, wasn’t compelling enough to excite any important constituency in particular. So where Mr. Carson ran largely as a conventional evangelical Republican candidate — racial dog whistles and all — Mr. Scott actively tried and failed to make a race-based message connect.